AURALiC Aries MINI
Input: Ethernet, Dual-Band WiFi, USB storage, AirPlay, Bluetooth
Output: USB (DAC), Coaxial, TOSLINK, unbalanced RCA
Dimensions: Appox. 5.3"W x 5.3"D x 1.1"H (13.5cm x 13.5cm x 2.8cm)
Weight: 1.1 pounds (0.5kg)
Availability: through authorized dealers
Price: $549.00 (includes 1 year of Tidal HiFi: US Only, $399 or equivalent rest of world)
Fit For Audiophiles?
I've seen this question posed and discussed about any number of things including the Auralic Aries Mini and I always think; this is what's wrong with some of the thinking in our hobby.
The Aries Mini is a UPnP/DLNA/Open Home ready network player and ESS Sabre 90182KM endowed DAC. The Mini supports all your usual file formats (AAC, AIFF, ALAC, APE, DIFF, DSF, FLAC, MP3, OGG, WAV, WV and WMA) as well as PCM resolutions up to 32-bit/384kHz and DSD to DSD256. You can connect the Mini to your network either via Wi-Fi or Ethernet to stream from network attached storage as well as Tidal HiFi, Qobuz, and Internet Radio. The Mini will also read from USB storage and also allows for a user-installed single internal hard disk drive or solid state drive allowing users to skip dealing with NAS and network complexities. The Mini runs on the company's "proprietary Tesla hardware platform that includes a Quad-Core ARM Coretex-A9 processor running at 1GHz, 512MB DDR3 onboard memory and 4GB internal storage."
Auralic have also developed, and continued to improve, their Lightning DS app for iOS devices as well as their Lightning Server. The Mini, being all UPnP'd and DLNA'd, can also communicate with any number of media servers including Minimserver, Twonky, Asset UPnP, JRiver, and DLNA/uPNP compatible server software.
Network setup is relatively simple due to the Lightning app's setup guide. Plug in the Mini, connect it to your network (the company recommends WiFi), and follow the guide in the app. This process should take all of a few minutes as the app auto-discovers your WiFi network, your Aries device, and once connected, your NAS. The first time you connect to your NAS the app will take some time to scan your library, the exact amount of time depends on its size.
I chose to run Lightning Server on my Synology NAS as this allows for additional views of your library including "Last Modify Date", "Last Import Date", "File Sampling Rate", and "File Type". I also setup my Tidal account in the app so I could tap into Tidal's near endless music library. I also setup the Auralic Aries (see review). I chose to run via WiFi and did not encounter one hitch in my giddyup during the review period.
When the Aries Mini was first announced, it was priced at $399. By the time it came to market, Auralic decided to tack on a year of Tidal which comes with the bigger Mini price tag of $549 for all US customers (for the rest of the world, the original price stands). In the grand scheme of things, this may, or may not, seem like much money but in relative terms it is. For those who have prepaid for a Tidal HiFi subscription, your next year will be free.
The Mini is roughly the size of a Mac...mini and its white or black plastic body is minimal in features, with three recessed buttons on the front, top edge for controlling volume and mute and a status indicator LED at the back, top edge. The buttons also come into play if you encounter setup issues and can also be programmed for different functions through the Lightning DS app. Up top resides the AURALiC logo, ever so subtly embossed.
The Lightning DS app
I went through some details of the Lightning DS iOS app in my review of the original Aries but the company has been working on the app and improving it in a number of ways, most notable was the aforementioned simple app-based setup guide.
As you can see in the screenshot above, there are a number of ways to filter your music library; Album, Artist, Composer, Genre, Release Date, Last Modify Date, Last Import Date, File Sampling Rate, File Type, and All Tracks. There are also two views - album cover and list. The Search feature searches your library, your streaming service library, as well as Internet Radio. You can also create local Playlists that mix music from your library and your streaming service as well as create and edit your web-stored streaming service Playlists.
Overall, I found the Lightning DS app very user friendly and one of the better apps out there, on par with Aurender's app and the Bluesound app. None of these matches the sheer delight of using Roon/Tidal with its rich metadata linking, Roon Radio, and seamless Tidal integration. At present, Roon/Tidal is the king of apps by a very long shot, imo.
One interesting option embedded in the Lightning app (Settings > Lightning Device > Filter Mode) is the ability to choose from 4 digital filters—Precise, Dynamic, Balance, and Smooth. We'll talk more about these shortly.
While I mainly used the iPad version for remote control, I also spent some time with the new iPhone version (v2.5) of the Lightning app. The iPhone app is much faster rendering data as compared to the iPad version and now incorporates features from Tidal including metadata, artist radio, and more for Tidal selections. It is also very nicely laid out on-screen and overall I found it a pleasure to use. My preference is the iPad's larger screen and the company is working on porting this new version of the app to the iPad.
For more on the included updates and bug fixes in v2.5, see Lightning DS iOS Version 2.5.
Music Lover Approved
Let's begin with comparisons. Comparing the Aries Mini to the original Aries ($1599) using both to serve the review sample dCS Rossini DAC via the same length of Light Harmonic LightSpeed USB cable, the Mini proved to be less discerning in terms of perceived clarity. The original Aries delivered a cleaner and more resolute sounding signal to the dCS DAC, making music sound more dynamic, more micro nuanced, and easier to listen to. These differences were not dramatic, and I'd imagine a series of quick A/Bs would do a good job of confounding them. However, listening over time proved the original Aries was the more keen music maker.
Slipping my MacBook Pro running Roon/Tidal into the comparative Mini picture was interesting due to the fact that I did not hear a notable difference one way or another. If we take out the price for one year of Tidal HiFi from the Mini's price tag, we're left with around $310 for the Mini which competes very nicely with the $1300 or so MacBook Pro. The Mini did seem to offer a slightly more weighty sound, but again we're talking subtle. One thing that moved me more in the direction of the MacBook is I already own it and I prefer Roon as the interface to my music and Tidal. It's also worth noting that you can get a new Mac mini for $499.
The Bluesound Node 2 ($499 pictured left) is a network player/DAC very much like the Aries Mini (it houses a Dual-Core ARM Cortex A9, 1Ghz processor). You can also grab the Node 2's digital out via Coax S/PDIF or Toslink. I opted for Toslink to the dCS so we're not comparing apples to apples in terms of connectivity or file resolution capability as the Node 2 only handles PCM, no DSD, up to 24-bit/192kHz. Based on sound quality alone, I'd call this one too close to call. While the Aires Mini seemed to have a bit more bottom end, I wouldn't bet my reputation on that observation.
Let's move to the analog outputs since my guess is many Mini users, and Node 2 owners, will make use of their internal DACs. If you have a highly resolving system, my Ayre AX-5 Twenty / DeVore gibbon X is such a beast, I don't think you'll be perfectly content using the Aries Mini as DAC. The overall presentation is a bit flat and hard, and tone colors are not nearly as full and rich as I've heard through the Auralic Vega DAC being fed its bits from the Mini. Of course a $3500 DAC should outperform a $549 DAC/streamer and it does. The real question is, how does the Aries Mini fare in a more modest and friendly system.
Towards that end, I moved the Mini into our house proper and connected it to my Leben CS-300XS integrated amp which drives a pair of vintage (stock) Alec Valencias. While still not a cheap rig, The Aires Mini fit right in and bettered the Sonos Connect that has been residing there. The Aires Mini seemed to pull out more detail, editorializing less than the Sonos Connect, breathing fresher air into the Leben/Altec combo. I streamed from Tidal HiFi and also sent some tunes from my iPhone to the Aries via Bluetooth and it sounded like good, fun music. I could easily live with this simple setup.
Back in the barn, the Bluesound Node 2 offered an airier and more open sound through its analog outputs as compared to the Aries Mini. There was also more apparent body, I nicer fuller sound which drew me in into the beats with greater physicality. These apparent sonic differences stuck over time—music was simply more engaging through the Node 2.
Another relevant Mini comparison will be to the Sonore Sonicorbiter SE ($298). The Sonore is Roon Ready and offers USB output and a review is in the works, albeit with no firm date at present. For those not wanting to buy a device with an internal DAC they don't plan on using, the DAC-less Sonicorbiter SE may be of interest. Stay tuned.
I played with the Mini's Filter Modes and found I preferred Dynamic, Smooth being, well, too smooth. Since this is a user-selectable option, this really falls under 'who cares' info except to note that these filter choices allow you to tailor the Mini's sound to taste, a very nice feature in a streamer/DAC at this price point.
Tweaking the Mini: The Importance of Power
The original Aries comes with an external linear power supply (sold separately for $299) so I replaced the Mini's wall wart with the beefier PSU. Ahh that's better, read my mind's notes. The perceived hardness and flatness I noted earlier with the Mini's analog output relaxed, so did I, and bass performance was also notably improved. Music sounded fuller and richer and was now the equal of the Bluesound Node 2's analog output. To do the math, US customers are now looking at a $849 Aries Mini DAC/Streamer/PSU solution and one that better fits into more resolving systems.
I will also note that Auralic showed the Aries Mini at RMAF 2015 paired with the Dynaudio XEO 4 ($2,100/pair see review) powered speakers. To my mind, this is a great approach to building a smart, simple, system.
Within the right system context, the Aries Mini as streamer and DAC delivers good, fun sound. With the addition of the Auralic external linear power supply, sonic performance is improved to the point where the Mini competes very nicely with the Bluesound Node 2 and I'd say it can comfortably reside in systems whose total cost falls within a single digit multiple of the Mini + PSU's cost. As your system's resolving power grows, you can always add an external DAC.
If we add up all of the Mini's strengths including the ability to play up to 384kHz PCM and DSD256 files, user-selectable filter modes, a very user-friendly app, access to your NAS-based music, USB stored music, Tidal and Qobuz streaming, Internet Radio, Bluetooth and AirPlay access for friends and family, and the ability to add internal storage, I'd call the Auralic Aries Mini a big deal.
Also in-use during the Aries MINI review: Auralic Aries, Bluesound Node 2